Today's Question: Is Anheuser-Busch’s 'Fan Can' marketing campaign inappropriate?

Thursday, September 3, 2009 | 10:51 a.m. CDT; updated 6:08 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 3, 2009

College football and beer. At first, the combination sounds like a marketing campaign to be rivaled only by one starring children and animals. However, some feel Anheuser-Busch dropped the ball when the brewery assumed it could exclude a large portion of the college demographic from its recently launched and controversial "Fan Can" promotion: students under the age of 21.

Just in time for college football season, Anheuser-Busch has launched a series of Bud Light beer cans in 27 color combinations that correspond to universities across the country. Cans do not portray college logos or mascots; school colors are the only design decision connecting them to institutions.

Many universities have expressed their displeasure with the promotion, viewing the campaign as encouraging underage drinking and as trademark infringement.

In a letter to the company, MU Chancellor Brady Deaton asked Anheuser-Busch to immediately discontinue the cans that mimic the university's colors. Deaton said some retailers have chosen to display the black and gold beer cans with official MU gear, resulting in an association with the university he called "completely unacceptable." The message that MU supports the "Fan Can" promotion infringes on “the university’s identity and reputation,” Deaton said.

The Federal Trade Commission has contacted Anheuser-Busch about the campaign because alcohol industry regulations require that at least 70 percent of its advertising audience be 21 or older, which the FTC says is not the case for student populations.

Carol Clark, the brewery’s vice president for social responsibility, responded to concern over the themed cans by saying they were meant to be a fun promotion for college football fans of legal drinking age and older. Specific cans would not be available in areas where organizations asked that they not to be offered, Clark said.

Are 'Fan Can' beer cans a fun way for students of legal drinking age and alumni to show school spirit, or did Anheuser-Busch's promotion show disrespect to learning institutions and underage students?

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Ralph Turner September 3, 2009 | 11:29 a.m.

I can see where the fan cans might increase the A/B sales, but I would suspect that overall sales would remain similar to what it has been in the past. I think the Fan Cans are a brilliant marketing concept. Received my degree in 1970, so this is from a "seasoned perspective".

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Phillip Berrong September 3, 2009 | 5:19 p.m.

These fan cans might give the impression that students are more interested in getting drunk and hanging around football games than receiving a well-rounded education. What would all the scientists in the Anheuser Busch Natural Sciences Building think if they found out about this?

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Calan McConkey September 4, 2009 | 5:25 p.m.

I highly doubt there is any *actual* trademark infringement going on here. It's not as if AB is putting a team mascot or team name on the cans (according to the article anyway - I have yet to see the cans personally). Deaton's argument that the cans could be confused as being licensed by Mizzou because other Mizzou apparel is usually displayed near the cans is a weak one at best. Mizzou may think they have some legal precedent in their favor based on the recent KU t-shirt decision, but that decision is very hazy and convoluted. The KU case was the University trying to bully a small t-shirt distributor that they wanted to put out of business. I'm pretty sure that if Mizzou tries a stunt like that on AB, they will get legal circles run around them by AB's lawyers.

Overall, I don't think Brady Deaton sincerely meant what he was saying. Specifically, I don't think Mizzou genuinely believes that any sort of actionable infringement is taking place. Deaton is probably trying to make Mizzou look like it is taking the moral highroad here by preaching to AB about underage drinking, which makes concerned parents of Mizzou students feel better when they sleep at night. If Mizzou is REALLY concerned about underage drinking then they could easily crack down on it on game days by patrolling the football parking lots. The truth of the matter is, however, drinking on game days goes hand-in-hand with college football and college football goes hand-in-hand with lots and lots of money for the University. Mizzou made its speech about underage drinking to protect its image, but I'm assuming this will be about the last you will hear about this issue.

Oh, one last point: probably not a good idea for Mizzou to go after AB when they have donated millions of dollars to the University - "Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Building", anyone?

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